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Mom with a View


The danger behind the charm.


When I was in college, the psychology department was constantly advertising for study subjects. It was an easy way to earn a few extra dollars (which in those now long ago days actually meant something). I participated in multiple experiments (thereby funding many late-night runs for coffee and doughnuts) but there is only one that made a lasting impact.

The alleged goal of the research was to determine the most effective interviewing techniques. We, the subjects, would undergo a personal interview and then we would evaluate the skills of our interrogator. While I don't recall every question, I do remember that every answer I made was turned to positive account. If I didn't have a plan for my future, then I was open-minded and flexible. If I had some thoughts about it, I was organized and well-prepared.

The evaluation focused on how much we liked the interviewer, whether we thought we could be friends -- all interpersonal issues. I had really enjoyed the interview, she seemed to like me very much, and I wrote glowingly of the future potential for our friendship.

I was the perfect subject for this experiment and eloquently proved their thesis which was not about interviewing techniques (no surprise), but about the power of flattery.

"O that men's ears should be to counsel deaf but not to flattery!" (William Shakespeare)

Giving compliments is a powerful tool for creating and building relationships. Flattery destroys them. Praise rightfully earned helps develop the self-esteem of those we love. Insincere flattery (which may be an oxymoron since flattery is by definition insincere) makes us feel less worthwhile, makes us feel hurt and used. While we may initially be seduced by a flatterer, we are ultimately left empty; we feel soiled. It's like spending too many hours with a used car salesman (or a politician). Of all such people, King David warned, "Each one speaks untruth to his neighbor; smooth talk, with an insincere heart do they speak" (Psalms, 12:3).

The Torah prohibits flattery -- we are not allowed to manipulate our relationships in dishonest ways. If we know that someone is going out of town, we can't "pay back" a dinner invitation by inviting them over during their vacation week. It's false. It's flattery. It suggests that we would sincerely enjoy their presence when the opposite is more clearly true.

I have found personally that the charm of a flatterer begins to wear off the more time we spend together. The first few meetings I'm complimented and gratified. As time passes, the praise wears thin (I know I'm not that great!). Especially when I see it equally and liberally applied to all others.

However, as much as we need to guard against flatterers -- it's a bribe of the mind and we are all susceptible -- we need to be even more vigilant not to become flatterers ourselves.

People who are always flattering others seem to lose their core, their sense of self, their soul. A life of insincerity erodes their foundation. Flattery hurts the flatterer the most. Whatever the immediate gain, the long term loss supercedes it. And just as our own sense of self can't be built on a foundation of flattery, neither can any real relationship.

I like compliments as much as the next person. But I don't want illusions (and I know that I didn't really lose any weight!). Because of the personal and interpersonal cost, the Torah warns against a life of flattery.

I like to think that if I was the subject of a similar experiment today, I wouldn't be so easily seduced. But it may depend on what they say...

January 5, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Ester, January 9, 2008 8:01 PM

The worst kind of flattery

The worst kind of flattery, that is absolutely forbidden by the Torah, is telling someone they're good when they're sinning, i. e. complimenting your friend on an immodest dress or laughing at a joke that's intended to make fun of someone. This encourages the sinner and is considered like sinning yourself.

(12) Deborah, January 9, 2008 2:03 PM

Pondering the thought

I sit here pondering the difference between flattery and compliments. True, flattery is excessive and has a manipulative intent. That is deceitful and false, definitely negative. However, much needed are compliments: true expressions of positivity.

I agree with the comparison the author makes between flattery and compliments. Car salesmen and politicians are just examples that are easy to relate to. Of course there are decent politicians and car salesmen. Everyone at some point has been a target of manipulation. Flattery is a tool to be used by manipulators.

Here's another example: I recall walking out of a clothing store with a sick feeling in my stomach that I just purchased something way out of my $ range that didn't even look good on me, just because the sales person was chattering away at me with all kinds of bogus flattery. What a wonderful mother you are . . . that's so you . . . great color on you. . . you deserve something nice. While the comments may be true, she didn't know me and was saying anything just to make the sale. I tend to doubt that she'd say . . . your children are acting up you'd better go . .. plus the color is all wrong and the style doesn't suit you . . . go next door they have better clothes there . . .

(11) Mrs. D., January 9, 2008 9:41 AM

AS I see it...

I basically agree with Mark of 1/8: THe "litmus test" for whether effusive compliments are meant as flattery or are just genuine (However possibly overstated), is the motive factor: What do they want FROM YOU!?!?!
I have personally found there are three basic "types" of over-complimenters"-
A)THose who really just mean it, and they tend to be very positive, giving types, who really want to offer you their sincere estimates of how amazing you are.
B) THe ones who have learned that lots of high praise either earns them points, favors, attention, clout, a discount, or the like.
C) The sort of unfortunates with a very low estimation of their own value or abilities, and tend to express their awe of the greatness of you, but are really insinuating that they can't believe what losers they are. They really also do mean their compliments sincerely, but only in the context of comparing themselves to others by the standard of their lowly-self-image.
I was once complimented by a type-A sort of kid, a friend of my son who was over for a visit and and supper (about age 11). He looked up to me adoringly and said, "You know what I like about you, Mrs. D? You NEVER lose your temper! You NEVER scream!"
Really? Well...
THe power of that compliment , however overblown, was high-impact. I strove to live up to this little fellow's image of me for months to come, the echo of his kind words reverberating in my thoughts whenever I had the urge to react vicerally to the latest run-in with my testy (read that "normal") kids. What magic! I am actually grateful for what he did, though it was amusing, too.

(10) ruth housman, January 8, 2008 6:36 PM

flattery and flummery

I am flattered when someone praises my work. I tend to be able to tell those who are sincere from those who are not. I personally, always try to find something to say about another that is positive and it is not flattery as some kind of personal gain, ie. friendship but it is a compliment that is about what I am seeing that is truly, in my view good, about what that person has said or done. We all need positives and I do believe that a sycophant can easily be distinguished from someone who is truly speaking from the heart. There are some people who distrust "flattery" and often it is because they themselves have holes in their self-esteem. This is another kind of problem because their belief system is saying they cannot accept any compliment and so what is being said can easily be distorted.

(9) Mark, January 8, 2008 1:18 PM

one needs to discern

we need to be careful to not misconstrue things. if we're wise, we can discern the difference between some 2 bit hustler con-artist, who's massaging our ego for the purpose of obtaining something, and a genuine compliment of a friend, or friendly person. i think it is human to have an agenda, and believe we all do at times, it need not mean we're all is full of trickery, yes. but there are gray areas.

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